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Why Is San Francisco's New Chinatown Rose Pak Station So Controversial?

Jocelyn Tabancay
Dozens of protesters outside San Francisco City Hall on August 20th urging the SFMTA to name the new Muni station simply 'Chinatown Station.'

Chinatown’s political powerhouse Rose Pak has been dead for three years, but that hasn’t stopped her from causing controversy. San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency named the new Muni station in Chinatown after her but not everyone is behind the decision.

The SFMTA meeting in August that affirmed the Chinatown Rose Pak Station name lasted over eight hours. That was after months of long meetings debating whether or not the new station on Stockton Street, which Rose Pak fundraised for before her death, should bear her name.

Among her supporters are many activists and residents along with politicians like former mayor Will Brown, Supervisor Jane Kim. San Francisco Resident Hae Min Cho said Rose Pak was an inspiration for her.

“I'm a part of a movement of young women of color, who are being politically active ... because of Rose Pak,” said Cho with a wavering voice at the meeting. “Everybody here knows who Martin Luther King is, who Cesar Chavez is. Rose Pak is our leader.”

Opponents of putting Rose Pak’s name on the Muni station claim they’ve gathered 16,000 signatures agreeing with them. Here’s Chinatown resident, So Chow, arguing against naming the station after Pak:

“She's too controversial. The people who liked her were friends. Even though she was a big bully. We dare speak up,” said Chow at the meeting. “We try to forget about her and past. Please don't bring back the disturbing memory when we take the subway or walk by the station. So no Rose Pak”

To understand why the name of a Muni Station could cause so much trouble, you need to understand Rose Pak.

She was born in China in 1948 and immigrated to San Francisco at the age of 16. From the '70s until she died in 2016, she lobbied nonstop in San Francisco and Chinatown politics. She had no problem offending people in the process. Here’s what Pak said at the Chinese News Year Parade in 2012 roasting District Attorney George Gascón.

“Let’s light a Firecrackers under the DA's crotch,” said Pak in front of a crowd of people.

At that time, the DA was investigating alleged shady dealings in the Pak-controlled campaign for former Mayor Ed Lee. The DA eventually dropped the case citing insufficient evidence.

She certainly had a thing for explosive comments.

“Supervisor Peskin. I called him Taliban because he sabotaged and blocked a lot of projects in our neighborhood,” Pak said in a live interview on KQED in 2013. From this comment, you might think that Supervisor Aaron Peskin did something really bad but Pak called him out for opposing a parking lot development she supported.

Ironically, over the years, Pak would get on Supervisor Peskin’s good side. So much so that he’s actually the one who proposed the Chinatown Rose Pak Station name.

So despite her fiery tongue, or maybe because of it, she succeeded in things like fundraising for political campaigns and developing this new Muni line leading to Chinatown.

“Rose never stabbed anyone in the back. She stabbed him in the front,” said Malcolm Yeung, the Deputy Director of Programs at Chinatown Community Development Fund. “You knew she was coming and she never hid it. I think that's a genuine form of leadership.”

Yeung met Pak over 10 years ago and remembers her as a community hero that helped preserve Chinatown as a place for both small businesses and tenant.

“Rose formed a unique political alliance that I'm not sure exists anywhere else,” Yeung recalls. “It was an alliance between merchants and tenants [with] the common goal, of making sure that Chinatown remains a vibrant immigrant gateway. And to me, that's Rose's most significant legacy.”

One of her first successful undertakings was in the 1970s. Chinese Hospital which serves many low-income and monolingual speakers almost closed because of building safety regulations. For three years she lobbied and fundraised to keep its doors open until finally, Chinese Hospital was able to relocate to a new facility.

In the 1980s, she gained a reputation for stopping gentrification.

Throughout it all, Pak got really good at raising money and getting politicians to listen to her.

Pak dodged several lawsuits and investigations during her lifetime, including a 2001 FBI probe for affordable housing fraud. Many who oppose her still suspect her of corruption. I spoke with Pius Lee, chair of the Chinatown Neighborhood Association, who did not want the station to be named after her.

“She did everything behind the scenes. She wanted to control everything by herself,” said Lee at his office across the street from the developing Muni station. “I told all supporters, she wanted to give back to the community.”

Lee argues that Pak wouldn’t have wanted the spotlight. Pak worked constantly on projects of her choosing. She didn’t like any official spotlight on herself unless it was on her own terms. Pak herself said she got too much credit for the station.

Fast forward to 2019, hundreds of Chinese Americans pour out to voice concerns at the SFMTA meeting. Some wait all day.

Sitting through hours of heated testimony, it’s still hard to discern the winning argument. Was she a community advocate or neighborhood bully? A little of both?

The ayes have it.

But the controversy over Rose Pak's legacy continues.

Opponents of the station’s name say they will put it up to a ballot measure next, but for now, the Chinatown Rose Pak Station is set to open in 2020.